I think we can all agree Ben Affleck’s career has been one of fits and starts, a spotty collection of motley diversity that has ranged from critical castigation to hard-earned acclaim. Generally speaking, I like Affleck more than I don’t. But I’m apparently in the minority when it comes to my appraisal of Live by Night, because I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as its negative reception would suggest. However, that’s not to say the film doesn’t have some definite drawbacks.
The film is a modern take on the classic gangster pics of the Warner Brothers golden era, and Affleck states his intentions unequivocally when a throwback WB logo — complete with artificial film schmutz — presages the introductory scenes of this adaptation from Dennis Lehane’s titular novel. Affiliating the movie with such an august lineage is a bold assertion, and one that doesn’t necessarily do the picture any favors. Affleck is a poor substitute for Cagney or Bogart. And, even in the context of modern takes on period crime-dramas, this is a second-tier film. Is it as good as Chinatown or The Godfather? Of course not. Is it as bad as Public Enemies or Gangster Squad? Thankfully, no. As things stand, Live By Night will probably go down as a largely forgettable footnote of the genre — distinguished by solid performances and immaculate work by the art department — but little else.
Comparisons aside, Affleck’s film does have some peculiar charms that merit my recommendation. As with his previous directorial efforts (The Town, Argo and Gone, Baby Gone, another Lehane adaptation), Affleck’s greatest strength is as a director of actors. Here he coaxes nuanced performances out of Sienna Miller and Zoe Saldana as his love interests and gives Brendan Gleeson and Chris Cooper room to class up the proceedings as heavily conflicted father figures. If anyone’s performance fails to meet expectations, it’s Affleck’s own, coming across as a little too stiff — and more than a touch smug — in his turn as small-time-hood-turned-rum-running-kingpin Joe Coughlin.
But perhaps the strangest and most engaging aspect of the piece is its narrative structure, spending the first act on a Boston-based backstory before transitioning to Tampa and a drastically different visual aesthetic. Contingent upon this geographical relocation is an equally drastic shift in thematic context which carries a thoroughly unexpected racial component, as Joe confronts not only rival gangsters but also the KKK. I was initially somewhat shocked by this development, but surprisingly it seems to work, lending an additional layer of interest to an otherwise conventional gangland-power fantasy.
Even if Live by Night lacks the novelty of its early antecedents’ moral ambiguity and the nostalgic appeal of its more recent predecessors, Affleck captures his period setting admirably and tells a story that is nothing if not unique within the genre. It’s too drawn out, and things fall apart in the last 15 minutes with a series of cursory climaxes capping off each and every plot thread with beats that are at once predictable and excessive. But there’s an appeal underlying all of its contrivances that I have a hard time putting my finger on. For those harboring a predisposition for the genre, or those looking for the egalitarian wish-fulfillment of watching a Boston Irish Catholic murder a significant number of racist gangsters and Klansmen, Live by Night is a safe bet. For everyone else, there’s a better performance from another Affleck still hanging in around theaters. Rated R for strong violence, language throughout and some sexuality/nudity.
Now Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.